The US is Reviving the Worst of its Immigration History to All of Our Peril

The US is Reviving the Worst of its Immigration History to All of Our Peril

Calvin Coolidge (middle of picture). Editorial Credit: Shutterstock

By Zeke Hernandez | The Hill

100 years ago today, America committed its biggest immigration blunder when President Calvin Coolidge signed the National Origins Act. As we commemorate the anniversary, most of the conversation focuses on condemning the racist motivation of excluding Asians and Southern and Eastern Europeans. (Suffice it to say that Adolf Hitler was a fan.)

But almost nobody talks about two things. One is the self-harm the restrictions caused to America: significant job losses, obliterating innovation by American scientists and companies, lowering investment across our communities and giving rise to the border problems we still experience to this day.

The second thing we’re overlooking is that we face the real risk of repeating the same blunder. Forces identical to those that led to the 1924 law are at play.

Trump and his allies are dominating the headlines and winning the rhetorical battle with the hyperbolic message that immigrants are villains who threaten our economy, culture and security. Like 100 years ago, they claim that mass exclusion is essential to save America. President Biden — like most people — seems confused about how to respond.

As voters and citizens, will we be smarter this time around?

The 1924 law banned all immigrants from Asia and restricted Europeans to 2 percent of the number of foreigners from any given country that were residing in the United States as of 1890. The quotas slowed Southern and Eastern Europeans’ arrival to a trickle.

The demographic result was massive and swift: immigrants went from nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population to less than 5 percent. The self-harm is clear in hindsight.

Even today, communities that lost immigrants because of the 1920s quotas receive significantly less investment capital from the countries where those immigrants would have come from, and businesses in those places today invest less abroad as a result. That lack of investment equals fewer jobs.

The 1924 quotas led America to lose out on thousands of foreign scientists. As a result, native-born scientists became 68 percent less likely to patent and companies dependent on foreign talent suffered a multi-decade decline in patenting.

Beyond harming consumers and businesses, these lost innovations compromised national security by weakening America’s leadership in areas like chemistry, physics and math. Part of the reason the U.S. fell behind in the space race was its paranoia towards foreigners, and its subsequent catch-up was powered by aggressive recruitment of immigrant talent.

The architects of the 1920s immigration restrictions claimed to be protecting American workers, but they accomplished the opposite. At the height of the Great Depression, politicians worried that American workers were being hurt by competition from Mexicans; the government forcibly repatriated one-third of all Mexicans living in the U.S. The effort backfired, resulting in fewer and lower-paying jobs for American workers.

The 1924 law stayed in place for over 40 years. In the end, the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against the Soviet Union forced Congress to act. The U.S. couldn’t credibly position itself as a beacon of freedom and equality while maintaining an openly racist immigration system. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated the country-specific quotas and immigration levels have returned to about 15 percent of the country’s population.

But the National Origins Act still casts a long and damaging shadow. Nobody seems to question the fact that our system is still governed by quotas, albeit not openly racist ones. And the notion that the quotas Congress sets should remain in place for decades has gone unchallenged. In fact, we only meaningfully updated those quotas once more, in 1990.

This legacy of legislative rigidity is the main reason we have such a large, permanent population of undocumented immigrants.

The number of visas we hand out is far below what our country needs for economic, humanitarian and other purposes. We don’t even replace the 700,000 prime working-age people who die each year, let alone allow the people needed to power an ever-expanding and ever-more-complex economy.

It’s like setting a speed limit of 25 MPH on a major highway. When you do that, people have a very strong incentive to speed. Not because they’re inherently evil, but because the law makes no sense.

Today, we face conditions eerily similar to those leading up to the 1924 law.

This time, we’ve experienced a mass arrival of Asians and Latin Americans. Like 100 years ago, many today worry that they’re poor, uneducated, don’t speak English and bring unassimilable cultures and religions. The combination of 9/11 and a leaky border now provide a national security pretext for draconian restrictions, as WWI did back then. And a group of politically motivated and well-funded pundits are making the same old “villain” argument that immigrants hurt us economically and threaten our precious heritage.

That group is winning the rhetorical battle because the most common counterargument isn’t effective. Those who favor immigration mainly push the compassionate idea that immigrants are the “poor, huddled masses” to whom we have a moral obligation — even if it costs us dearly. But that doesn’t light a fire under people or mobilize voters.

And so we find ourselves facing the same precipice our forebears did exactly 100 years ago. Will we be smarter this time?

First, we need to be better-informed citizens. Unlike in the past, we now have solid evidence that immigrants are net positive contributors to everything that makes for a prosperous society. It’s not just that immigrants fill job shortages — which is often the only favorable message about newcomers in the headlines. The truth, however, is much more positive and much broader than that! Immigrants foster investmentcreate jobs, make us more innovative, fill our public coffersreduce crime and successfully integrate culturally.

Second, we must vote according to the facts instead of falling prey to the falsehoods advanced by politicians and repeated in the headlines. Not because that’s good for immigrants. But because it’s good for us.

So let’s be smart and embrace immigration as the gift that our country rejected 100 years ago.

Zeke Hernandez is a professor at the Wharton School and the author of “The Truth About Immigration.” Contact him at:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.